President Trump's top telecom regulator, Republican Ajit Pai, is preparing an assault on US rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be treated equally, setting the stage for what's likely to be a fierce battle with public interest advocates over the future of internet freedom.
Pai, who was chosen by Trump to lead the Federal Communications Commission in January, is expected to lay out his strategy to dismantle the agency's landmark 2015 net neutrality policy on Wednesday, according to multiple reports. A former Verizon lawyer, Pai vehemently opposes the FCC's rules, which he regards as a "mistake."
If Pai succeeds, he will deliver yet another major gift to broadband companies like AT&T and Verizon. These billion-dollar corporate giants vehemently oppose the FCC's policy, in part because it ensures that they can't prioritize their own online services, discriminate against rival offerings, or sell internet "fast lanes" to the highest bidder. The broadband industry has spent millions of dollars fighting the rules at the FCC, in federal court, and in the halls of Congress.
Open internet advocates argue that the FCC's net neutrality policy is essential for US economic growth, online innovation, civic empowerment, and digital free speech. And they're preparing to mobilize a grassroots movement to resist any effort by Pai or Republican lawmakers to dismantle net neutrality protections.
"If Ajit Pai thinks that destroying net neutrality is going to be easy, he has another thing coming," Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights group, told Motherboard. "Internet users will fight tooth and nail to defend our basic right to connect, create, learn, and share."
Activists predict that the expected surge of popular opposition to Pai's plan, which could face a vote at the Republican-controlled FCC as early as next month, will dwarf the 2014 uprising in which four million people filed comments with the FCC, most demanding that the agency approve strong net neutrality protections, which it ultimately did.
"People will see right through Chairman Pai's dishonest plan."
Many tech policy experts believe that Pai will propose allowing internet service providers to make voluntary, non-binding open internet commitments, a move that would effectively end the FCC's role as the nation's net neutrality enforcer. In other words, Pai may ask the American people to simply trust that companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon will keep the internet free and open for innovation and free speech.
Such a scenario would be like "asking the fox to behave as you let him into the hen house," former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime net neutrality champion, recently observed. The public outcry that would likely follow such a proposal could pressure Republican lawmakers in Congress to step in with a supposed "compromise" legislative solution, but they're likely to face strong resistance from Democrats, many of whom view such a "voluntary" industry approach as a non-starter.
"The only way to protect a free and open internet is with strong net neutrality rules of the road—not voluntary guidelines—that ensure businesses, innovators and families can use the world's greatest platform for commerce and communications," Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, said in a recent statement. "Chairman Pai's proposal would put the future of an open and free internet in the hands of big corporations and the powerful few at the expense of consumers."
Pai's forthcoming assault on the FCC's net neutrality policy is consistent with the Republican "drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub" ideology, which has led to the elimination of consumer protections across broad swaths of the economy under the Trump regime. Earlier this month, Trump signed a bill championed by Republicans that gives broadband companies the green light to sell consumer data to the highest bidder, a move that infuriated privacy watchdogs.
Pai's Wednesday speech will reportedly be sponsored by FreedomWorks, a DC-based right-wing activist group perhaps best known for helping to launch the conservative Tea Party movement. (And also for producing a video depicting Hillary Clinton having sex with a giant panda. Seriously.) FreedomWorks, which has received funding from AT&T and Verizon, has long opposed the FCC's net neutrality policy, which the group claims, in true Orwellian fashion, is a threat to "internet freedom."
"People will see right through Chairman Pai's dishonest plan," said Craig Aaron, CEO of DC-based public interest group Free Press. "As they have before, they will fight back in Congress, at the FCC and in their communities. They will use the internet to save the internet—and they will remember where their leaders in Washington stood when the future of net neutrality was in jeopardy."
A FCC spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment about Pai's speech.
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